Nicola Adams: Pioneering female boxing champion to take Commonwealth Games by storm

The first female gold medalist in Olympic boxing on how she achieved world titles in a relatively male-dominated sport, as well as confidence in her sexuality

There’s a palpable sense of focus in the Team GB boxing gym. With less than a month to go until the Glasgow Games, the squad has cranked up its training to 12-hour days that include a 7am run and meticulously timetabled skipping, core-strength and punching sessions.


Although the athletes will splinter off into their home nation teams when the competition begins, they are, for the time being, very much the tightly-knit GB unit that fought its way to five medals at London 2012, egging each other on and chatting animatedly between bouts.

At 3pm on the dot, a claxon heralds the start of the speed-punch round. The Sheffield Sports Hall reverberates with the rhythmic smack of gloves on pads and the guttural grunts of sweat-drenched male boxers. An army of coaches, physios and performance analysts hovers in the background, forensically picking over every jab and duck. “This week, next week, you’ve got to GRAFT,” bellows one. “Win that gold!”

A slender figure watches the action, wrapping long, black tape around her hands before slipping into the ring. For the next two minutes the five-foot six-inch figure of Nicola Adams silently, but ferociously throws arrow-sharp punches at her sparring partner. She may be the smallest – and quietest – boxer in the room, but Adams, 31, is the biggest star. The first woman ever to win an Olympic boxing gold medal, she stormed into the nation’s hearts at London 2012, toppling China’s three-time world champion Ren Cancan to win the flyweight final with a thunderbolt left hook and a mega-watt smile.

Does she ever feel that her chirpy, unassuming nature is at odds with such a boisterous and historically male-dominated sport?

“The women don’t focus as much on power and knockouts as the men do,” she explains during a break from training. “It’s probably just a question of testosterone. We’re more calculated… It’s just a game to me. It’s like a game of tag. You’re trying not to get hit.”

Despite this, Adams prefers to spar with the men. “They’re fast and keep me on my toes!”

The different sexes do, however, share one surprising, common trait. “Even with the guys, it’s not about aggression. You’ve got to be really controlled when you go into the ring. If you go in there with anger, you’ll be much easier to catch. If you’re a normal person, you might go in to relieve a bit of stress, but we’re athletes and so we never think of it like that.”

A lot has changed for Adams over the past two years. She began London 2012 as a little known underdog, and emerged a history-making hero, catapulted onto the sporting A-list, receiving an MBE and a deluge of invitations to appear on red carpets and chat shows. Politicians clambered to attach themselves to her effortless likeability, resulting in a trade mission to Brazil with David Cameron, and a Labour Party Conference appearance in 2012.

Most satisfying, says Adams, is the way in which her win has encouraged others to take up the sport. Along with her high-profile fans (she has inspired both Boris Johnson’s sons and even Pippa Middleton to glove up) the “Nicola Adams effect” has been credited with a 50 per cent rise in the number of women participating in some form of boxing.

“It’s amazing that I’ve been able to have that effect on people. It’s one thing that I didn’t realise was going to happen after 2012.”

She has also had to come to terms with her role model status outside of the ring. Despite it being notoriously difficult for athletes to come out as gay, Adams is openly bisexual, quietly but courageously acknowledging her sexuality long before Tom Daley and Ian Thorpe’s more high-profile declarations. Although she was “very proud” to top the Independent’s 2012 Pink List celebrating Britain’s most influential gay, lesbian and transgender figures, she is reluctant to discuss her relationships – she would rather be defined as “just a person” than by whom she is dating.

She does admit, however, that while the decision to come out was a terrifying one, staying quiet was never an option.

“I’ve always been an open person and I just thought that it might help other people if I talked about everything. All the way through the Games I was never anybody but myself. It’s being me that inspired people so I’m just going to carry on doing that.”

Much of Adams’s self-belief stems from childhood. Growing up on a tough Leeds council estate, there was ample opportunity to fall into trouble. However, it was her mother, Denver, a hairdresser, who kept Adams on the straight and narrow, taking her to church “now and again” and encouraging her to work hard at school where she excelled at maths and science.

“I wanted to do something to impress my mum. I wanted to be a champion and for her to be able to say, ‘That’s my daughter.’”

It was Denver who introduced her daughter to boxing. Divorced from Adams’s father and unable to find a babysitter, she took Nicola and her younger brother Kurtis to an aerobics class. Adams, who grew up watching videos of Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali with her dad, spotted a boxing class in the next room and joined in. “I wanted to be like Ali – compete in the Olympics and shuffle.”

Adams was hooked and signed up to her local amateur club, despite being the only female member. Although she fought her first novice match a year later, it wasn’t until 1998 that the Amateur Boxing Association lifted its ban on allowing women to fight competitively. In 2001 she became the first female boxer to represent England and went on to win two silver medals at the World championships, followed by a European gold in 2011.

Adams’s stumble into boxing may have had a fairytale ending, but she is determined that other young people shouldn’t have to rely on chance to discover their sporting passion and last year completed a stint as president of “Us Girls”, a programme aimed at getting women active in some of the UK’s most deprived areas.

What does she make of the recent proposals by Jennie Price, the chief executive of Sport England, that girls should be coaxed onto the school games field with the promise of hairdryers in changing rooms? “They actually have that in my gym and I do my hair when I come out.”

But shouldn’t girls be focusing on sport and not their post-workout hairdo? “When you’re out there playing, get it done. Everyone sees me in my tracksuit, but I like my Jimmy Choos and my Paul Smith T-shirts. You can be in the ring and then be on the red carpet looking glamorous.”

When Adams does finally hang up her gloves, she hopes to make a transition into acting, having enjoyed a cameo in the BBC’s Waterloo Road earlier this year.

“I watch loads of TV and I’d love to be in The Walking Dead or an action movie,” she grins.

Before then, she has more than enough to keep her occupied in the ring. “I’ve had three silver medals in the World championships and I want to get gold. We’ve never had a double Olympic Champion, so I want to achieve that.”

Although she’s competed in the European championships for the past two years, the Commonwealth Games will be Adams’s first return to the full glare of the world stage since her Olympic triumph. What will be going through her mind as she steps out into the clamorous Scottish arena?

“I’ll think about my tactics and listen to my music and have a bit of a dance. Then I’ll have a joke with my coaches. I never really like to take anything too seriously.”


With that, she glances anxiously at her watch and excuses herself to go and warm up for her next training session. Whatever she says, you’d be hard pushed to find a more serious athlete than Nicola Adams.